On Aug. 21, the tiny congregation of Austin Boulevard Christian Church voted unanimously to close its doors on Dec. 25, now just two months away.
The August meeting was not contentious.
“We had been struggling for awhile trying to decide what the path of the church was going to be,” said Rev. Dwight Bailey, ABC’s pastor.
Members had come to accept the reality that their century old church was not going to grow. The congregation, located at 634 N. Austin Blvd., tried renting space out to other small congregations and non-profit organizations. Bailey said the congregation also tried to use several “evangelistic tools” to invite new people to reinforce their dwindling membership, but worship attendance has decreased to 25 on Sundays.
At the same time, ABC Church welcomed, at different times, three other congregations into their space, but in all cases the partnerships didn’t work out. One congregation never even contributed a cent to the maintenance of the building. A CEDA Head Start program located in the building helped the church pay its bills for several years until the daycare relocated.
Inevitably, church members compare their present situation to ABC Church’s “glory days” in the 1950s, when weekly worship attendance averaged 500 to 600 people, and the crowd at Easter overflowed the worship area into the lobby.
The congregation then was all white. Then came the demographically turbulent days of the 1960s when blacks began migrating toward the Austin neighborhood and neighboring Oak Park, and many white church members responded by moving further west in the suburbs.
Ministers like Don McCord were “real champions of diversity,” said Bailey, and intentionally worked to welcome people of color into the church. To a degree, they were successful. The church diversified its membership to include blacks, whites, Hispanics and Filipinos. The diversity, ironically, became an obstacle to growth, because, as Bailey explained, multicultural congregations rarely grow.
Bailey said his denomination, Disciples of Christ, no longer even tries to start new congregations, which are anything but homogeneous.
Looking back on ABC Church’s history – which began in 1896 – members are now involved in assigning meaning to the numerical growth and decline of their faith community. Longtime members remember the days when the men had athletic teams, the women’s group was active-a lot was happening in the congregation.
At the same time, when asked if the Austin Boulevard Christian Church has been a failure, Bailey immediately and emphatically replied, “No.”
“ABC has been a giving, nurturing church which has always been involved in the Oak Park/Austin community,” he said.
In fact, the pastor insists the congregation intends to keep on giving right up to Christmas Day, continuing to host an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting, as well as Mission USA, a ministry to ex-offenders. The church has become a PADS site several times this year, providing shelter for the homeless when other host churches had scheduling conflicts. The congregation is inviting the community to attend its Heritage Dinner on Nov. 19 at 4 p.m.
As for the future of its large building, the congregation remains unsure what to do with it.
Bailey, though, remains positive, insisting this is one more step in each member’s journey of faith.
“We are a winner,” he said. “ABC has been faithful. I can look into the face of God and say ‘thank you’ for the opportunity you have given us to serve.”